Earlier this week, Space Ape Games announced that it was shutting the servers of its title Boom Beach: Frontlines, following an unsuccessful soft launch. Despite promising beginnings, in comparison to their other ventures, the game has struggled.
Space Ape, a mobile free-to-play game studio is based in London, currently employs around 120 people covering everything from game design and development to self publishing. Supercell acquired a majority stake in the studio in 2017.
We spoke to Space Ape's co-founder Simon Hade.
Tell us more about Space Ape and your state of play right now?
Space Ape celebrated its 10th birthday this year and we’re currently operating four games: Rival Kingdoms, Transformers Earth Wars, Fastlane and Beatstar. Our games have been played by over 150m people and generated $375m lifetime revenue. The most successful one is Beatstar, a music rhythm game which generated $75m in its first year. Prior to Beatstar we were better known as a midcore game studio with a speciality in live ops and community driven games. Transformers Earth Wars (a build & battle game in partnership with Hasbro) has grossed nearly $150m and is still going strong, with an incredibly passionate community. It’s actually growing, which is unusual for a 7 year old game and we’re investing more into it.
I’ve been the COO for most of the life of the company but recently switched to focus more on marketing and supporting new game releases. Prior to Space Ape I worked at free to play games pioneer Playfish (acquired by EA) which is where I met my co-founder John and many of the first twenty Ape’s. Like most people at Space Ape I’ve now spent the majority of my career working in games.
You saw massive success with Boom Beach: Frontlines initially. What made you decide as a company that it wasn’t meeting expectations?
In many ways, the game was surpassing expectations but was unfortunately not measuring up in long term engagement. If it were a simpler type of game, say a primarily single player game like Beatstar or Fastlane, or an asynchronous PvP game like Transformers Earth Wars, then we’d be inclined to work the problem, rather than abandon it given the promising signs.
However, since this was a synchronous 9v9 team battle game this made it incredibly difficult to iterate to solve long term meta design problems. Brawl Stars, the leader in this genre, took years to find the perfect combination of gameplay and meta, and that was much smaller scale at 3v3 (there is a good summary of their journey here).
We’d had a front row seat to how Brawl Stars developed, and also had experience trying to make a 5v5 game work before, so we were tackling these problems with our eyes wide open. However, when the team did the math with all this experience and learnings from a year of soft launch and realized the time and financial commitment they’d need to crack this long term design problem was prohibitive.
Did you consider other options, or was shutting down the servers the only path you considered?
Yes, our first instinct whenever we kill a game is always to see if there is another path, especially when there is a passionate community behind it. It’s rarely the case that a game is an objective failure – when that happens the decision is easy! In this case there are a lot of people really motivated to find an alternative, both within Space Ape and outside, but unfortunately these games are incredibly complicated to operate so handing it over or changing business model were not realistic options.
How do you decide when a game is becoming unsustainable?
Generally, when making these decisions the team looks at the overall impact that the game will have on our business. It’s important to remember that most of these decisions are made by the teams, not some central greenlighting committee. So the considerations are unique to each situation but it will be some combination of the metrics of the game – its stats, marketability and product market fit indicators – combined with the opportunity cost that comes with launching and operating the game as a service for years to come.
When you’re making smaller scale games, or premium games, the opportunity cost question is less of a factor, meaning that if a game is going to be incremental then why not launch it? We are familiar with that model from Fastlane. Fastlane is an arcade shooter and we barely invested anything into it post launch. We were able to do this because we designed the LiveOps systems to be fully automated from the beginning, and there were no deep community features or expectations that the game would change over time. In that case we designed the game specifically to be hyper efficient to operate, because people who play those kinds of games tend to like them for what they are and generally it is a bad idea to evolve them over time.
There are plenty of studios running that kind of model and it works well for some genres and audiences. After all, Fastlane was impactful for us having been played by over 40m people and generated over $40m revenue so it was by any measure a success! However, the kinds of games we get most excited about making, and the kinds of games that are most impactful in the market today, are services that run for years, and which grow and evolve over time. For those kinds of games, launching globally is a big commitment and we want to be sure that we see a path to it being a game people will be playing and talking about in a decade. If we do then we’ll commit to it for the long haul, but it's a high bar. So that’s why you see us kill a lot of games before global launch, as opposed to launching a whole bunch of games and seeing what sticks.
Working with another company’s IP historically requires a lot of back and forth for approvals, how has the internal process been with Supercell, and did they play a role in closing down Boom Beach: Frontlines?
Working with IP is hard, but we have a lot of experience with it. Many of us have worked at big publishers and franchises, and at Space Ape we have experience with Hasbro for our Transformers game. We’ve also worked with third party IP on a number of games that were killed at prototype or soft launch stage. Beatstar is probably the most complicated third party IP game ever made because we have partnerships with all of the major music labels, publishers and dozens of independents. The best way to think of Beatstar’s relationship with IP is if you were trying to make a game that included IP from each of the major movie studios and the biggest games franchises in the world and you need them all to agree on everything. That’s Beatstar. So compared to that, working with Supercell on Boom was a walk in the park!
The approach we have also taken to IP, whether that is Hasbro on Transformers, or Eminiem’s team in Beatstar, is to commit to doing something that would be meaningful and strategic for the IP holder. If you’re a game studio who is relying on third party IP as a means to solve some marketing limitation, or if you’re only thinking about how you can cash checks from the brand bank, then your game is doomed to fail. You need to be thinking about depositing checks in the brand bank and becoming strategically important to the IP holder.
For Transformers this meant adding to the lore, and going above and beyond to make the game something a Transformers fan would want to talk about on the fan wiki sites. We made an entire feature – the show room – that has no utility other than to show off the fact that the bot models we built are fully 3D and actually transform. We brought in original writers from the 80’s comic books and staffed the team with people who lived and breathed the brand. That paid off with Hasbro entrusting us to design new bots and introduce them in the game before they went into production and all kinds of benefits which mean it is the most successful Transformers game.
For Boom we took a similar approach. We wanted players to see this as the Boom Beach game that they played in their heads, something akin to the award winning cinematic ads from Supercell. We evolved the lore of the game and spent a lot of time with the team at Supercell ensuring that we were adding to the brand, not exploiting it. As a result we built a lot of trust, just as the Transformers team did with Hasbro, to invent new content and extend the IP such that we had complete confidence from Supercell to make the right decisions about launching or killing the game. Of course there would be things that we require their help on so we talked a lot with the team to get advice but ultimately the decision was left to the Space Ape team.
What lessons have you learned from Boom Beach: Frontlines that you plan to take with future games?
We certainly learned enough about the specifics of making multiplayer games to fill an entire Pocket Gamer Connects conference track! However the more interesting bigger picture learning was around how to think about slate and the importance of validating product market fit as early as possible.
When we started working in the arena genre, it didn’t exist on mobile. This was pre-Brawl Stars, pre-Battle Royale. Free to play MOBAs were successful on other platforms, and were emerging in the East on mobile, so it felt like it was only a matter of time before it would be a thing on mobile and we wanted to be at the tip of the spear. In retrospect we spotted the trend correctly as tens, if not hundreds of millions of people flocked to these kinds of games as they came online. The problem was we were too slow to capitalise on this insight.
We started with a 5v5 eSport title (Rumble League) which missed the mark and by the time we came up with the plan for Frontlines, the genre was already well established and player expectations were set by various successful games. With hindsight, what we should have done at that point was to reconsider all of our assumptions now that the world had moved on. Our thinking was anchored to experiences and insights from a period when the genre was less developed, and we learned some fundamental things about the audience and approach deep into development. By the time we did then it was really difficult to change course.
Our new approach, informed by Frontlines and other games from that generation of the company, is to front load a lot more audience research and prototype validation, particularly when entering established genres. We need to be careful not to swing too far back in the other direction though. After all, making games is an art as much as a science and teams that are constantly seeking validation of every decision typically psych themselves out of doing anything interesting. But there is a balance to be struck and we’re already seeing the benefits of these learnings from Frontlines in our new games.
Beatstar continues to enjoy huge success. Do you have any future events planned in the same vein as the Curtain Call 2 event?
Yes Beatstar is going from strength to strength. It grossed $75m in its first year and has unlocked a significant new revenue stream for a lot of artists. However the most exciting aspect of the game from a music industry perspective is the game’s ability to really focus millions of gamer’s attention on new music releases.
We’re running events on a weekly basis. We actually re-ran the Eminem event recently for players who missed the opportunity to participate in it the first time around, and recently did a partnership with Shania Twain around her new release and some massive back catalog hits such as Man! I feel Like a Woman and Don’t Impress Me Much. In both cases we found that leaning into the theme more heavily helped the events connect better with players. In the case of Shania we ran that event in the context of a Country music themed month we called “Guitars and Bars” which was a lot of fun.
On the product side we’re gearing up for our biggest feature since the introduction of Events and the Tour Pass (our version of the Battle Pass). It’s called Deluxe Mode and it will introduce a whole new set of interactions, objectives and mastery to the game. We have hundreds of songs in Beatstar but an increasing number of people have maxed out the campaign having played for a year. This feature will give them fresh depth and extend gameplay for potentially years. We’re really excited about the potential of Deluxe Mode and when playing it internally it feels like it did when we first tested the game; something fresh and new but also familiar. On top of that we’re also working on a new music game to launch early next year that will take the franchise in a whole new direction building on the expertise we’ve developed in gameplay and working with the music industry.
Do you see subscription models such as Apple Arcade as an important play in the future of mobile gaming?
I still believe free to play is going to be the dominant business model for the foreseeable future and if you’d asked me a year ago if I saw subscriptions in our future I’d have been skeptical. However the space has now matured to a point where it is interesting for major free to play developers. There are some great games on Apple Arcade and the subscription is amazing value for money.
We have some experience with subscriptions already since Beatstar has an Apple Music subscription tie-in and we already run Battle Passes in some of our games.
As we explore new projects we keep running into ideas for games that should be made, and which there is clearly an audience for, but which don’t naturally lend themselves to free to play. As with most of our slate decisions it is all driven by team passion. In the past we would have shelved those ideas, but if it makes sense for the game and the team is passionate to explore subscriptions then we’ll support them.